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Jury awards more than $3 million to family of Cotati crash victim

Officials inspect a vehicle involved in the fatal accident on Highway 116 in Cotati in 2009.

PD FILE, 2009
Published: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 6:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 6:37 p.m.

A Sonoma County jury awarded more than $3 million Wednesday to the family of a Santa Rosa mother killed in a 2009 collision on Highway 116.

In a 9-3 decision, the jurors said Caltrans was 25 percent responsible for the fatal crash and must pay Maria Juana Flores' family roughly that portion of the official $10.6 million verdict.

Barring an appeal, Caltrans must pay all of the $646,446 in economic losses awarded by the jury and one-fourth of the $10 million award for non-economic losses.

The woman's husband, Jaime Flores Aguilar of Santa Rosa, and their three children will receive about $2 million, after attorneys' fees and trial costs are covered, said Jeremy Fietz, their attorney.

Fietz said he believed the $10.6 million verdict is a record for Sonoma County wrongful death lawsuits, although most of that judgment will not result in a monetary award.

The driver who struck Flores' car from behind on Highway 116 in Cotati, Gilbert Freeth of Huntington Beach, was dismissed from the case before trial in exchange for $100,000, the limit of his insurance policy, Fietz said.

The jury found Freeth 75 percent responsible for the crash.

"Justice has been done. It's over," Jaime Flores said through a translator in the hallway outside the courtroom.

Flores, 49, said he would "not want one penny" if his wife was still alive.

Their youngest child, Josue, 7, asks "what happens, Daddy, if you die," Flores said.

Fietz said he told jurors during the trial that "the young ladies (Flores' teenage daughters) are growing into womanhood without a mother."

Fietz and several jurors exchanged warm words in the hallway after the verdict was announced in Judge Nancy Case Shaffer's courtroom.

Emilce Deller of Sebastopol, one of the jurors, told Fietz "your research was impeccable" and his witnesses were "really credible."

Maria Flores, 36, had stopped to make a left turn from Highway 116 onto Madrone Avenue to pick up her children at school when her Honda was struck from behind by Freeth's vehicle.

The impact pushed Flores' car into the path of a big-rig truck, which crushed the Honda.

Flores' lawsuit asserted that Caltrans engineers knew the intersection was unsafe, pointing to unfulfilled plans dating back to 1998 to build a left-turn lane.

Lawyers for Caltrans argued the intersection was not to blame, and that Freeth wasn't paying attention when he slammed into the back of Flores' car going 45 mph on a flat, straight road.

Jurors deliberated for two and a half days before reaching a verdict.

Fietz said the "value of Maria Flores' life has been vindicated in this courtroom. It has been valued. It means a lot."

Economic damages are for the "loss of household services" by Flores, a housewife, he said.

Non-economic damages are compensation for the loss of her love, comfort and support for her husband and children, Fietz said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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